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Virginia Western Community College will begin a series of classes targeting students 50 and older to help reacquaint them with the skills necessary for job opportunities.
The Plus 50 Initiative has expanded to 88 community college campuses across the country.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Cathy Webb felt the full weight of 2008’s recession. Although she was so sick that “felt” might be the wrong word.
“I remember the day I was laid off. I had no feeling in my legs,” she said.
Webb, a Roanoke native, was battling bacterial meningitis when she lost her job as a mortgage broker in Northern Virginia at the peak of the financial crisis. She needed an income to cover her medical bills. And after working as a music teacher, medical sales representative and mortgage broker, she said she realized she had not yet found her calling.
“After a few years, I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d gone to medical school.’ It wasn’t until the dreadful recession that it came to me: Now is the time for a big change,” she said.
In 2009, Webb registered for classes at Northern Virginia Community College.
Webb highlights a national trend: The average age of the community college student is rising. More than 21 percent of Virginia’s part-time college students are over the age of 40, according to the American Association of Community Colleges’ 2012 statistics. And more than 15 percent of all community college students nationally are older than 40. This is the highest these percentages have ever been.
Virginia Western Community College hopes to attract a more mature incoming class this fall as it unveils a new program tailored to older students, said Leah Coffman, the school’s coordinator for work force solutions.
“I prefer ‘ageless learner,’ because ‘older’ isn’t right. Some people can do anything at any age,” she said. “We’re trying to create a community of learning that is accessible to that ageless learner.”
Virginia Western will begin a series of classes targeting students 50 and older, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Completion Program. Coffman said Plus 50’s grant will help Virginia Western restructure some of its operations to better accommodate an older learning audience.
“These ageless learners have to know the resources are there,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking when you meet with someone who’s been in a manufacturing position for 25 years, and they were confident they’d retire there. And that company has downsized, or it’s no longer there. They’re angry and they’re frightened and in some cases desperate. Our goal is to get them back into the work force.”
Coffman said community colleges focus too heavily on Internet advertising and online enrollment for the aging student body. She said many baby boomers are more comfortable registering for courses on paper as opposed to navigating a website.
“One of the things we’ll be doing is creating a comprehensive guide book in print with ‘how to’s’ for enrolling and the resources available on campus. A lot of people over the age of 50 may or may not be technologically savvy, so we need something in print so we don’t put barriers in their way,” she said.
Virginia Western is working with Goodwill Industries of the Valleys to establish an advisory committee to plan an age-appropriate curriculum for the fall. Coffman said Goodwill works with senior citizens in the area and has insight into their barriers and limitations.
The committee will help Virginia Western implement new courses such as Microsoft Office tutorials and basic math, English and technology refreshers. Coffman said such skills courses help reacquaint people with the standardized tests necessary for many employment and higher learning opportunities.
“If they’ve been out of high school or college for 30 years and come back into a place of study, they have to take a placement test. For those of us who haven’t had any standardized test for 30 years, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “They have knowledge. They have experience. We just need to get them up to speed.”
Virginia Western will begin its Plus 50 specialized courses in October. The school will offer basic refresher courses at the program’s launch. Coffman said additional courses are still in the works.
Mary Sue Vickers, national director of the Plus 50 program, said the operation began on 15 community college campuses in 2008 with the goal of returning laid-off workers to the labor force. The program has since served almost 25,000 students across the country, according to Plus 50’s website.
“This started during the time the economic downturn really hit. What our starting colleges found was a lot of our applicants really needed to go back to work,” Vickers said. “People are living longer, and people are healthier. People are not retiring as early, some out of necessity. And they’re able and willing to work longer.”
Vickers said the Plus 50 Initiative has expanded to 88 community college campuses across the country, and she hopes it extends to 100 schools by 2015. Recent expansions are attributed in large part to a $3.2 million grant from Deerbrook Charitable Trust. Art Sundstrom, Deerbrook’s executive director, said he is an adamant supporter of the program. He said older generations of workers have experience that can be invaluable to employers.
“People 50 years and older bring experience and expertise, but their skills may not have kept up over the years,” he said. “This gives them the ability to get some course work and some skills. They get financially better off, they fulfill dreams and wishes that they have, and the community benefits.”
Plus 50 programs have only recently spread into Virginia, Vickers said. Such specialized courses were not available to Webb in 2009, so she registered for classes as a regular NOVA student, while lying in a surgical recovery ward in Inova Alexandria Hospital. Three years later, Webb was back in the same room on the same hall — this time as a student nurse.
“For eight weeks in 2012, I was a student nurse there. The doctors who treated me did not recognize me at all,” she said. “Which might show how sick I was. But it was humorous seeing people’s reactions after I told them who I was.”
Webb graduated with honors from NOVA’s Medical Education Campus near Springfield in May. She passed her nursing board exam this month and is awaiting her EMT board certification results. She is not yet sure where she will end up, but she said an opportunity in southern Virginia would be difficult to pass up.
“I think about coming back to Roanoke every day. They have some of the best medical facilities in the country there,” she said.
After seeing a wide array of classmates on NOVA’s campuses, Webb said she thinks a program like Plus 50 will be a welcome addition to education in Roanoke.
“It’s incredible to go see a campus and see a mix of students and the ages that you have in there,” said Webb. “I know that the community of Roanoke is growing and changing. Some people retire. But some people just change what they’re doing, and, for me, that’s a better choice.”
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